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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: A NASCAR ROVALution in Charlotte

ONE: Thank You Marcus Smith, Charlotte Motor Speedway and NASCAR

A couple of years ago, Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO and director Marcus Smith, who also happens to be the general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, had an idea.

“Why don’t we revive the old road course and race NASCAR on the Roval?” Smith said on a recent NASCAR on NBC podcast. “We need a road course in the playoffs, and I thought this would kill two birds with one stone. Take out an intermediate 1.5-mile track and add in a road course, so mission accomplished. That’s how it happened.”

From there, it was a matter of convincing NASCAR that it was the right decision to run the configuration, and this past weekend, that dream finally became a reality. After multiple improvements to the infield road course and the addition of turf instead of grass (a fantastic idea that helped prevent splitter damage throughout the weekend), drivers went into the unknown “terrified” of what the outcome might be.

And instead of being the wreckfest many expected, the racing delivered. Sure, there was still plenty of carnage, but if you weren’t engrossed in both races over the weekend, I’m not really sure about the kind of racing you’re looking for.

Part of the appeal heading into last weekend was the unknown. With nothing other than some testing and practice sessions to go on, XFINITY and Cup drivers dove in head-first and gave it all they had. And it worked out beautifully.

Thank you Marcus Smith for the idea you came up with to bring a little excitement to an otherwise typically ho-hum race. Thank you Charlotte Motor Speedway for embracing the idea wholeheartedly and for putting it all together. And thank you NASCAR for seeing the idea had potential and taking a chance on making a change that could have just as easily been a complete disaster.

It was clearly a success and I look forward to next year’s version when drivers are a little more familiar with what to expect and how to approach the race.

And oh, by the way, there were heartwarming moments that came out of the weekend too:

TWO: Never Give Up

Many questioned the logic in making the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ first visit to the ROVAL a cutoff race. With so many unknowns, it wouldn’t be a whole lot better than ending a playoff round at Talladega, right? Well, it ended up going that route anyway, and part of the intrigue in the closing laps was just how tight the cutoff line was there at the end.

For most of the race, it was your pretty standard fare and little changed around the cutoff line. Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones all faced their own issues and were relegated to waiting until next season for another shot at winning the championship. But that final driver to be knocked out of the running changed multiple times throughout the final stage.

Despite a heavily damaged No. 10 Ford following multiple incidents on the day, Aric Almirola fought tooth and nail for a few positions on the track to take the checkered flag 19th, just enough to put him in a three-way tie with Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson.

But perhaps the bigger never give up moment came when Larson fought a heavily wounded car through the final three laps to finish 25th, which ultimately put him in the tiebreaker that kept him in the playoffs and dropped Johnson out.

As the laps wound down on Sunday, it appeared a fuel mileage race was playing out, and without much data to go on, even more intrigue entered the picture since no one was really sure just how much gas was left in the tank. Brad Keselowski led with Larson not far behind and it looked like the pair would be the ones to fight it out for the checkered flag.

That all changed with a late spin by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., which set up the restart that completely changed the complexion of the race. As the field entered Turn 1, Keselowski locked up the tires, drove head-on into the makeshift wall and a good chunk of the top 10 followed like a video game gone wrong.

In all, 13 cars were listed as involved in this incident, including five playoff drivers, and Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, William Byron, Trevor Bayne and Bubba Wallace were out on the spot.

After the wreck, a despondent Larson sat in his car under the red flag looking like all hope had been lost in his hopes to run for his first title. But instead of quitting, the No. 42 team pieced its car back together to the point where Larson was able to keep running after the red flag was lifted, though it was clear the wounded car was traveling on its last legs.

As Johnson spun on the last lap and dropped through the running order, suddenly Larson’s title hopes were still alive. All he needed was one more position to put himself in a tie for the final cutoff spot, and a wounded Jeffrey Earnhardt, who had been turned by Daniel Hemric as the field headed through the final corner, gave Larson the opening he needed.

That one more position with the pass on Earnhardt was just what Larson needed to keep his title hopes alive and proof that it’s not over until it’s over.

Want to add a little more drama to the tiebreaker? NASCAR’s damaged vehicle policy gives drivers three laps to meet the minimum speed in their damaged cars before pulling them off of the track and out of the race. The checkered flag lap was Larson’s third since the restart and heavy damage, and he would have been forced to retire with even one more circuit left to run. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons.

THREE: Jimmie Johnson Still Has It

To say the 2018 season has been rough for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team would probably be the understatement of the year. But despite being knocked out of the championship battle following an eighth-place finish at the ROVAL Sunday afternoon, the seven-time champion walked away showing that he still has the fire and drive to compete on a weekly basis.

Let’s back up for a moment. Running second to Martin Truex Jr. in the closing laps, Johnson could have easily just followed the defending champion around to the checkered flag and an assured spot in the Round of 12. Instead, he pushed the envelope and drove his heart out, right through Turns 16 and 17 to the point where he spun out of control and clipped Truex in the process.

As a result, both Truex and Johnson were taken out of contention while Ryan Blaney cruised to his first win of the 2018 season by being in the right place at the right time. And as anyone may have expected, Truex was none-too-pleased, evidenced by this shot taken at the No. 48 Chevrolet after the checkered flag flew.

Fast forward to Monday morning after Johnson had a chance to sleep on the finish, and it sounds like he doesn’t regret how aggressively he approached the finish. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Sure, Johnson did knock himself out of the championship battle with his aggressive moves through the final turn, but isn’t that what fans really want? No, I don’t mean Johnson out of the championship battle, though some probably cheered that part too. I mean a driver giving it their all to take the race win, rather than taking the safe route for a good points day.

Simply put, Johnson put everything on the line and lost a lot in the process. But for a driver who just turned 43 last month and lost a primary sponsor that’s backed him for much of his career, you could be looking at someone on his way out of the sport. Instead, the fire Johnson showed when he pushed for the race win in a season that’s been quite dismal for much of Hendrick Motorsports and outright horrible when compared to the No. 48’s standards is proof that the seven-time champion isn’t quite ready to hang up his helmet just yet.

FOUR: Moving Up Based on Talent

The weekend at the Charlotte ROVAL opened with a pair of announcements by JTG Daugherty Racing and Richard Childress Racing that revealed changes for their 2019 driver lineups. Both organizations had already said AJ Allmendinger and Ryan Newman would not be returning to their respective rides.

But on Friday, JTG was the first to reveal that Ryan Preece, who’d made a bet on himself and left a full-time XFINITY Series ride to have the opportunity to run part-time with Joe Gibbs Racing, will join the team alongside Chris Buescher next season. Then, a short while later, RCR announced Daniel Hemric will move to the Cup Series next season, despite not yet finding Victory Lane in the XFINITY Series.

It’s a refreshing change of pace to see drivers with raw talent getting their shot, rather than money dictating who was put behind the wheel. Preece represented himself well in four starts last season with Joe Gibbs Racing with finishes of second, first, fourth and fifth, and those runs translated to another 10 starts so far this season and a full-time Cup ride for next year.

Meanwhile, Hemric already had ties with RCR before moving to the Cup Series with the organization, though his road to that spot wasn’t exactly smooth either.

While we’re talking about talent, something that was lost over the weekend in all of the ROVAL excitement was Hailie Deegan scoring her first career win. She also became the first female driver to win a NASCAR K&N Pro Series race and accomplished the last of her goals set for this season.

This sport is full of talent waiting to be discovered and given the chance, and it’s great to see Preece and Hemric get the nod. It likely won’t be long before 17-year-old Deegan gets to work her way into NASCAR top three series either.

FIVE: Up Next, Dover

Dover International Speedway is going to have to work incredibly hard to live up to the action that was the ROVAL last weekend, but that’s the beauty of this sport. The one-mile Delaware track is known for some of its close racing and wild on-track action. Add in that it opens a new round in the Cup Series playoffs and you’ve got a recipe for excitement as drivers attempt to lock themselves into the Round of 8 before heading to Talladega Superspeedway the following weekend.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions heading into next weekend, though, is how Johnson and the No. 48 team will perform. It’s been clear in recent weeks that they’ve finally found some speed and can contend for wins, but having the wind knocked out of their sails in the form of being knocked out of the championship battle could prove the distraction that derails the progress they’ve made thus far.

What’s interesting to pay attention to as teams move back into familiar territory is that three of the last four races at Dover have been won by the Big Three. Johnson scored the spring win last season in his 11th trip to Victory Lane. Meanwhile, Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have wins in the other three races.

With all of that said, it’s not at all unusual to expect the Big Three will resume their spot at the top of the heap come this weekend at Dover.

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1 thought on “5 Points to Ponder: A NASCAR ROVALution in Charlotte”

  1. stupid rule ,you do a 360 then you must come to a stop to continue not the intent of the rule nascar make it up as we go

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